Why Has “The Wire” Been Used as a Focus of Higher Education Curricula?


“This kid, whose mama went to the trouble to christen him Omar Isaiah Betts… You know, he forgets his jacket, his nose starts running, and some asshole, instead of giving him a Kleenex, he calls him “Snot”. So he’s “Snot” forever. Doesn’t seem fair.” - Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West), The Wire (2002)

It’s not the opening line you’d expect from something studied at Ivy-league schools like Harvard and U.C. Berkeley, yet that’s exactly what is happening with The Wire, David Simon’s legendary HBO series examining the lives of people who can’t eclipse the institutions that delineate their lives. Have a chat with any fan of police dramas (or dramatic television in general), and you’re likely to hear The Wire sitting high in their list of the best shows ever made. That’s not because it’s packed with chic modern shock appeal like Dexter (2006), or Breaking Bad’s (2008) handsomely outlandish yet accessible Jesse Pinkman-types. The Wire is actually a pretty challenging thing to watch, not a late-night phase out-type program. A cop show, an urban drama, a drug story: it’s much more than the sum of its parts. It’s something that provided a scathing look at a deteriorating system in real time, way before many people living its story even noticed. It’s a critique of America in the wake of a national devastation.

And that’s why we’re not just talking about film and media studies or screenwriting classes. The Wire has found its way into the curricula of social science courses. It turns out there’s something authentic to be learned from The Wire’s fictional tale—something about poverty, social order, bureaucracy, and economics. Something about America.

Professors of classes teaching The Wire are combining the series with relevant literature to broaden the picture. Sociologist William Julius Wilson pairs the show with his book “When Work Disappears,” about the effects of disappearing blue-collar jobs, which is said to be the inspiration for the show’s second season. Boyd Blundell at Loyola University New Orleans teaches The Wire in an ethics class, Todd Sodano in a Syracuse communications class, and David Brody at Washington State University Spokane used it for criminal justice instruction. It’s a testament to The Wire’s reach—it effectively examined all facets of urban life.

“Although The Wire is fiction, not a documentary, its depiction of [the] systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the urban poor is more poignant and compelling [than] that of any published study, including my own,” William Julius Wilson told Slate.

Slate continues, “For Wilson, the unique power of the show comes from the way it takes fiction’s ability to create fully realized inner lives for its characters and combines that with qualities rare in a piece of entertainment: an acuity about the structural conditions that constrain human choices (whether it’s bureaucratic inertia, institutional racism, or economic decay) and an unparalleled scrupulousness about accurately portraying them. Wilson describes the show’s characters almost as a set of case studies, remarkable for the vividness with which they embody a set of arguments about the American inner city.”

The television medium is also an obviously effective means of engaging students. Students have always been more keen to respond to watching television or films than reading textbooks, and The Wire can be as effective as both. It’s a bleak look at inner city complexity that stems from fatalism, entwined with the melodramatic character moments necessary to facilitate a piece of entertainment. To that end, college classes study The Wire’s structure as much as its content; it combines the strands of realism and fictional seriality in a way unlike any other show, which has led to essays like Respecting the Middle: The Wire’s Omar Little as Neoliberal Subjectivity by Eric Beck.

Simon has a cohesive appreciation for the way the world works, and it’s apparent in The Wire. There’s a lot of angles to take when looking at it from an academic perspective, and it’s impactful to see distinguished university professors pulling from the series in class. Television, when at its peak, offers opportunities to learn, and The Wire is at the top of that stack.

A few university professors have put their Wire-related syllabi online. Check out a few below:

Stephanie Brown’s class at Syracuse University, Inside HBO’s America: A Case Study of The Wire

David Brody’s class at Spokane Community College, Examining Urban Crime, Policing, Politics, and Delinquency through The Wire